In his new book, A Season in Hell, Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler recounts how he and fellow envoy Louis Guay were abducted by a terrorist faction known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
While in captivity in the Sahara Desert, the career Canadian civil servant wrestled with constant fear that he could be killed at a moment’s notice. But he also realized he had been given a privileged insight into “militant Islamic fundamentalism”– a phenomenon he considers to be one of the greatest threats to international stability.
Mr. Fowler vowed to write a book if he survived the ordeal. He was released in April, 2009, after being held for 130 days as a hostage.
As an experienced geopolitical analyst it, was well nigh impossible not to conclude we were in deep shit. There was no obvious solution to our predicament .…
Just as we were about to doze off, we heard a great commotion around the front of the truck, a metre from our heads. The hood was opened and three large, heavy tires were thrown into a pile. By the time we had sat up to figure out what was going on, somebody had placed a laptop computer on the stack of spares and was plugging it into the cigarette lighter socket in the engine compartment. … Were we about to star in a new YouTube horror?
With some ceremony, a DVD was produced and inserted into the laptop drive and we were chivvied around to have place of pride in front of the screen. The others pressed about us, the younger ones in front. Three or four prepubescent boys among them, their screen-lit faces rapt with anticipation, excitedly tried to watch us and the laptop simultaneously.…
Using the traditional and mandatory Islamic opening, a voice intoned in Arabic, “In the name of Allah the most merciful,” and the centre of the screen began to fill with vignettes of all kinds of horrors: those aircraft slamming into the twin towers, U.S. and allied vehicles being destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan by IEDs … Dragunov sniper rifles blasting the heads off GIs and then murdering those who came to their assistance, suicide bombers driving explosive-laden trucks through fences and into buildings or crowds immediately followed by massive explosions.…
Each time an episode of mayhem and destruction occurred on the screen, the crowd pressing around Louis and me shouted, “Allahu Akbar!” and immediately swivelled their eyes to watch how we were enjoying the show.
* * * * *
We ate badly and worried about scurvy and other ravages of vitamin deficiency and nutritional insufficiency. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization deems that a daily intake of 1,800 calories is needed to maintain nutritional health, but a fifth of the people in our troubled world do not manage anything like that. I very much doubt we were receiving even half that amount. When one evening we were served a satisfying lentil soup, I tried to encourage more by offering compliments. The answer was fiercely dismissive: “We eat out of necessity, not pleasure.” And we saw no more lentils.…
They were fit. Hassan would escort the half-dozen younger ones on training missions at the run and they practised small-unit tactics, slithering around the rocks and dunes for hours in the blistering sun. They ran up and down mountains and did sentry duty at least twice each day, in addition to performing their various chores and going on missions (for water, communications and so forth) outside the camp. Louis and I, however, were tired out by our daily walks and despite our relative inactivity, we were each losing weight at about a kilo a week.
Our daily regime consisted of a breakfast of a large (shared) cup of powdered milk and a kind of fritter doughnut shortly after dawn and a lunch and usually identical dinner of rice or pasta delivered in a cracked and dented communal aluminum bowl with bits of filthy string wedged into the rents in the metal. Sometimes, if we were lucky there would be trace elements of tomato paste or sardines.…
* * * * *
Our captors would spend the day repairing trucks or tires, sleeping when coming off sentry duty, or praying, chanting and reading the Qur’an. When on the move, they only very reluctantly travelled in the extreme heat of the day, between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. If the journey they had in mind required more travel than could be accomplished before and after that, they found somewhere to wait out the brutal part of the day, but I was never happy when that meant we would be travelling across the desert at night.
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Omar was a Malian Arab who had travelled widely as an itinerant Islamic preacher.… Despite his extensive travels, he had no real understanding of the complex, contradictory reality of life in the West, nor did he have any significant intellectual experience outside his narrow Islamist milieu.…
He was an animated and compelling raconteur but he was incapable of adapting the circumstances and meaning of those divine words spoken and written 15 centuries ago to encompass any kind of 21st century reality. The words in which he had invested his entire life were precisely those that that been dictated over 23 years by the Prophet in the seventh century as he received God’s revelations from the Angel Gabriel. Nothing that had occurred since had any relevance to Omar’s being, purpose, or direction in life.… His preaching was very much oriented to his jihadi vocation. He regularly offered proof of Allah’s support for their cause by citing instances in which angels, clad in radiant white, accompanied the mujahideen in battle, which enabled them to overcome impossible odds.… The eyes of the young acolytes would grow bright and round as Omar described such battlefields, which, he breathlessly insisted, had been strewn with the dismembered corpses of the apostate enemy, blackened stumps evident where the avenging angels had smitten off limbs with fiery swords.…
Ibrahim, “ le Senegalais,” was, of course, one of the original abductors. Most memorably he had given me the news that we had been taken by al-Qaeda and then, some hours later, confided in a hushed whisper how much he admired Céline Dion.… He never explained what had caused him to take up the path of jihad, but at one point I was in a truck with him when, out of the blue, he told me he had a sister in Montreal who had been continually after him to immigrate to Canada to join her.
He then turned to me, guilelessly, and asked, “I guess it’s a little late now?”
Excerpts from A Season In Hell published in English in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright © 2011 by Robert R. Fowler. All rights reserved.
A Season in Hell: A four-part series
Thursday: The Call Home
Friday: Captivity in the Desert